After last season, the NHL created a new policy on hits to the head. The league brought in former hockey great Brendan Shanahan as player disciplinarian in an attempt to remove the same dangerous hits that have altered the careers of Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby. The results early on showed success. Shanahan suspended players with accompanying video evidence and commentary. The league suspended James Wisniewski for eight games after a head shot on Cal Clutterbuck in the preseason. He was only one of several players suspended before the regular season had even started. This new "crackdown" on illegal hits led to cleaner hockey games. For the first time since the olympics, we saw players holding up on bodychecks. Finally, the players were showcasing the sport as a skill game, much to the approval of the league's front office.
However, after the first few weeks, it appears the league has gone back to their inconsistent ways.
On Tuesday, it was announced Kris Letang would be suspended for two games in response to boarding Alexander Burmistrov of the Winnipeg Jets. Letang body checked Burmistrov into the boards while the young Russian had turned to retrieve the puck. Burmistrov was not injured on the play as Letang went into the penalty box for a two minute boarding call. Here is the rule on boarding from the NHL Rulebook:
"41.1 Boarding — A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee."
By definition, Letang's action was a penalty and it was rightly spotted by the referees. The problem is the suspension and, more importantly, the explanation of the suspension by Brendan Shanahan.
"Burmistrov's path to the puck is predictable and there are no sudden movements just prior or simultaneous with the hit"
If you watch the video again, you will see Burmistrov turn his back to Letang just as he is about to receive the hit. In ultra slow motion it looks as though Letang has time to pull up on the check but, at regular speed, it looks as though he would have never been able to pull up in time. Simply put, this was a hockey play deemed illegal, influenced by the expectation that a player should be able to pull off of a check in less than a second while skating full speed racing for a puck along the boards. The idea that Burmistrov's movements were not sudden only applies when you are watching the play in slow motion.
One of the big factors in determining whether or not a player should be suspended is their intent. While Letang did not pull up on his check and "finished with authority", as Shanahan described in the video, the intent to injure holds zero weight in this situation. With Burmistrov turning so quickly, you cannot justify Letang's intent.
But what about the intent of Cory Sarich's shoulder on Matt Cooke's head? A hit that dazed Cooke who had to take a trip to the "quiet room" before returning to action. Whether intentional or not, the result of the check was a hard hit to another player's head; something the NHL is presumably trying to eradicate from the game. Was there a fine or suspension? No.
The next night, Chris Kunitz was elbowed in the head by Oilers' forward Ryan Smyth. Kunitz fell to the ice as Smyth's stick hit him in the face. The referees gave Smyth a five minute elbowing penalty and a game misconduct. What was the league's response? Nothing. Yes, despite the fact that the referees, observing at game speed, were able to determine that Ryan Smyth's actions were egregious enough for a major penalty, Brendan Shanahan thought otherwise. Whether you saw the play live, on video, infrared satellite or Google Earth, you could see the hit warranted a suspension based on the nature of the hit: ELBOW TO THE HEAD. And yet, rather than suspend Smyth and continue to narrow the scope of legal hits in the NHL, Shanahan did what previous disciplinarians have done in the past: he sat on his hands.
The inconsistencies do not just start with the Penguins. If anyone deserved a suspension from Tuesday night's game in Winnipeg, it was Chris Kunitz. In the third period, Kunitz delivered a violent cross-check to the face of Tanner Glass. Kunitz received a two minute penalty for roughing while the result of the cross-check left Glass bleeding around the nose. Why was Letang suspended instead of Kunitz? After all, Chris Kunitz is a repeat offender -he served a suspension for elbowing Simon Gagne in the head last season in the playoffs- who obviously took a shot at another player's head during a non-hockey related play. How did that not warrant a suspension? How is Letang, someone who is trying to make a play during the game, more at fault than a player engaged in activity after the play is over?
My apologies for asking so many questions in this post but the league has left me in dire need of answers. When Brendan Shanahan replaced Colin Campbell, the NHL envisioned a more disciplined league where everyone had a clear understanding of illegal vs. legal checks. Obviously there would be hiccups along the way, but the wide range of discrepancies through just three weeks of the regular season is alarming. Letang's actions fall into the gray area; where a clean hit can turn dangerous by the speed and physicality of the game. If you can justify Letang's suspension, give it a shot. But the aforementioned hits were worse, more dangerous and more visibly against the NHL policy. If the NHL truly wishes to limit dangerous hits, then they need to set rules and enforce them. However once again, the NHL fails to make the right decision.